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Living in the Exterminable Epoch

The end of the world comes in a variety of flavors: the wrath of god, catastrophic storms, gigantic asteroids, unstoppable plague, climate change, nuclear Armageddon…and the list goes on. Particular sources of doom go in and out of fashion depending on the time period and the place, with particular bringers of doom occasionally enjoying fresh bouts of popularity. Yet, regardless of the precise source that is forecast as causing humanity’s annihilation, it should be relatively uncontroversial to claim that humans have a predilection for predicting their own extinction.

Of late the most popular end of the world scenarios (which should really be understood as “end of our world as we know it” not necessarily “end of the world as such”) tend to focus on the dangers of climate change – though dread of an antibiotic resistant super-disease certainly frightens some. Climate change is a danger that cannot be easily dismissed of as millenarian paranoia – though there are no lack of individuals eager to ignore it – and voices as varied as leading scientists and Pope Francis are attempting to raise the alarm, even as some fear that it may already be too late. Climate change is the apocalypse of the moment, but recently a slightly older obliterating onslaught found its way back into the news: the horseman of the apocalypse known as nuclear weapons.

Yesterday’s catastrophic fears often take on a slightly humorous quality – they seem quaint and silly. Thus, those who came of age after the Cold War ended can easily laugh dismissively at old videos warning people to “duck and cover” or build fallout shelters in their backyards. At least on a subconscious level many people may be aware that nuclear arsenals still exist, and that the threat of “the bomb” is still out there, but it is not necessarily felt as a reaper looming overhead waiting to bring down the scythe. Granted, in the aftermath of the announcement of a deal between Iran and many nations (including the USA) regarding the limiting of its nuclear program – it seems as though the atomic reaper has reappeared with a mad cackle in the popular imagination. That a deal struck in order to prevent the construction of nuclear weapons is leading to the stoking of fresh nuclear paranoia likely says more about the ideological uses of nuclear weapons than about the actual present risk of nuclear weapons; however, it should be recognized that nuclear weapons represent, and represented, the arrival of a particular strain of doom. For these devices are not the same as a fear of a vengeful god, freak mega-storm, or a rogue asteroid – instead nuclear weapons ushered in the era when the power of annihilation was stolen from the gods and put in human hands.

Nuclear war is the Armageddon we bring upon ourselves.

For a number of writers the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki turned the allied victory in WWII into a horrific foreshadowing of what was to come. Fascism had been defeated and the death camps had been liberated – but now the potential for oblivion hung over the entire species with the power to press the proverbial “button” resting in the hands of fallible human beings. In the estimation of the German thinker Günther Anders, nuclear weapons represented the arrival of a new era:

“for what is exterminable today is not ‘merely’ all men, but mankind as a whole. This change inaugurates a new historical epoch, if the term ‘epoch’ may be applied to the short time intervals in question. Accordingly, all history can be divided into three chapters, with the following captions: (1) All men are mortal, (2) All men are exterminable, and (3) Mankind as a whole is exterminable.” (Anders 1956, 148)

Nuclear weapons inaugurated the arrival of the third epoch, the period in which it was not simply that every person could be killed, but that the human species had at last invented the method for ushering in its own extinction. The appearance of this third epoch did not so much represent a period which humanity would pass through as it stood for the new reality with which humanity would have to contend until it could find a way to break free – which would require the willful repression of the techniques that had ushered in this era. True, the Cold War ended without mushroom clouds hovering sickly above all of the world’s cities – but so long as the bombs remained in existence (and the know-how to make them) humanity remained stuck in the exterminable epoch.

Anders was not alone in this fear – the anti-nuclear movement mobilized scores of people all over the world in its heyday and drew the support of many prominent individuals, including some of the scientists who had been involved in developing atomic weapons. For thinkers associated with the critique of technology – including Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Erich Fromm, Hans Jonas and Anders as well – nuclear weapons represented a stark example of the dangerous potential of science and technology. Certainly, atomic weapons were awe-inspiring feats of scientific and technological inventiveness, but as Lewis Mumford put it:

“Unless our political or social inventions are equal to our scientific and technological inventions, we confess complete intellectual and moral bankruptcy.” (Mumford 1954, 97)

Of course, the nuclear war that the aforementioned individuals so desperately feared did not come to pass. Yet this fortuitous turn of events was more of a happy coincidence than a result of “political or social inventions” proving “equal to our scientific and technological inventions.” After all, the danger of nuclear weapons did not lead to governments abruptly coming to their senses and stopping their pursuit of ever more destructive implements – indeed the Cold War is a story of the building of huge stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. And though – luckily – those devices were not fully unleashed, those bombs still exist. It may be tempting, a comforting fantasy, to think that we have moved out of the third epoch of which Anders wrote, but the sad fact is that we remain thoroughly nested in that period.

There is something unfathomable about nuclear weapons. These are devices that in some ways represent the pinnacle of cold and focused scientific rationality – and yet these bombs also represent the zenith of irrationality. To speak about nuclear weapons is to say things that seem unspeakable and to think about nuclear weapons is to think things that seem unthinkable – for in calmly discussing such apocalyptic machines one winds up indulging in a sort of inured acknowledgment that such abominations exist. Discussing bombs that can wipe out whole cities requires one to get past the initial moral revulsion that such things should even exist. This acceptance is the “intellectual and moral bankruptcy” of which Mumford wrote, and it is the bankruptcy that continues to haunt us as we still trudge about in the exterminable epoch. After all, one can applaud the steps taken in the recent negotiations with Iran to limit the development of nuclear weapons while still wondering why there was no point in the negotiations at which attention turned to eliminating the nuclear stockpiles of all of the nations of the world. Why did none of the negotiators not have the audacity to say: “Yes, Iran should not have a nuclear weapon…but no country should have a nuclear weapon!” The calamity is not that a new nation should build a nuclear weapon, but that any nation should have one. Granted, this is not the flavor of doom that we have been accustomed to tasting of late. Indeed, the great triumph of the nuclear deal with Iran may wind up being that in six months most people will be back to ignoring the threat these devices represent.

Apocalyptic dangers are hard to process. Certainly the cavalcade of post-apocalyptic popular entertainment provides numerous examples of blighted wastelands patrolled by desperate (yet alluring) anti-hero survivors. Popular culture supplies no lack of images of collapse, and yet it is difficult to take these threats too seriously – even as time runs out to confront climate change and nuclear war remains only the press of a button away. One can certainly detect a measure of fear, a willingness to rise to the challenge, but it is not too great, as Mumford wryly observed:

“We are perhaps ready to change the world, but only on one condition: that we do not have to touch or transform our selves.” (Mumford 1946, 118)

The question that lingers is therefore: what would this change look like? Recently, Pope Francis outlined one potential answer to this question – but Mumford’s talk of transformation should be considered against his comment regarding “intellectual and moral bankruptcy.” That we know we should do something is no guarantee that we will. For Anders, therefore, the key was to encourage people to be afraid, as he put it in his “Commandments in the Atomic Age”:

“don’t be a coward. Have the courage to be afraid. Force yourself to produce that amount of fear that corresponds to the magnitude of the apocalyptic danger. For also fear, fear above all, belongs to those feelings which we are unable or unwilling to realize; and the thesis according to which we are living in fear anyhow, much too much so, even in the ‘age of fear’, is a mere cliché, which, even if not fraudulently propagandized, is at least ideally suited to suppress the breaking out of a fear commensurate with the threat and thus to make us indolent. The truth is rather the contrary that we live in the ‘Age of the inability to fear’, and that we confine ourselves to allowing the development to take its course.” (Anders 1961, 14)

The amusing element in the negotiations with Iran is that we had forgotten to be afraid of nuclear weapons – and then in a flurry of denunciations we were exhorted to be very afraid, but in a month or two we will go back to being told that there is no reason to worry. But life in the exterminable epoch should be a cause for fear – regardless of whether the usher that seats the pale rider is climate change or nuclear weapons. Steps to limit the development of nuclear weapons are good, as are preventive measures taken to blunt the threat of climate change, but unless we are to confess to “intellectual and moral bankruptcy” it is necessary to see the full scale of the dangers.

A modicum of fear allows one to celebrate small steps, but unless larger steps follow those it is easy for such advances to be rendered moot by backsliding. Humanity was marched into the exterminable era by fear of challenging the destination towards which it was being steered by “scientific and technological inventions” that our “political or social inventions” were not able to counter. Despite the date on the calendar, this is still the period in which we live.

It will take serious courage to escape this epoch.

Works Cited

Anders, Günther. “Reflections of the H Bomb.” Dissent. Volume 3, Issue 2. Spring 1956 (pgs 146-155).

Anders, Günther and Eatherly, Claude. Burning Conscience. Monthly Review Press, 1961. (“Commandments in the Atomic Age” is included in this book)

Mumford, Lewis. Values for Survival. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946.

Mumford, Lewis. In the Name of Sanity. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.

Related Content

Towards A Bright Mountain – Laudato Si’ as Critique of Technology

“The Courage to Be Afraid”

But on the other hand…it’s a really nice day

“The Attempt to Keep Conscience Alive” – Reflections on Günther Anders book Burning Conscience

The Good Life or “the Goods Life” – On the Work of Lewis Mumford


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

One comment on “Living in the Exterminable Epoch

  1. Pingback: “Atomic warfare means universal extermination” | LibrarianShipwreck

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This entry was posted on July 16, 2015 by in Ethics, Government, History, Impending Doom, Technology, US Politics and tagged , , , , , .

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